A Most Delightful Summer
Harriet Smith was not a fortunate child. Her mother had been very beautiful, but poor. She had made the big mistake of falling in love with a young man from her neighbourhood. This man was very much attracted to the young lady, but had no intention of marrying her. After all, she did not have much, except her beauty.
Their love affair was not without consequences. As soon as the young woman had found out that she was pregnant, it was decided that she was to go into the country and give birth to her child there. Nobody was to know anything about that matter. The natural father was willing to pay for the child's upbringing and education, provided that his name should never be mentioned.
So, one day in June, a little girl was born. It had been a long and difficult delivery, and the mother did not survive it for long. She lived long enough, however, to see her daughter and to name her. The girl's name was to be Harriet, like her mother's.
Harriet spent the first years of her life on Mrs. Jones's farm. Mrs. Jones was Harriet's nurse and treated her as if she was her own child. Her farm was very small, so she took charge of children to increase her income.
Harriet loved living on the farm. There were so many exciting things she could do and see! The kittens were Harriet's favourites, but she also liked the other animals. She helped Mrs. Jones whenever she could.
Harriet was a very pretty child. Her fair curly hair and her bright blue eyes attracted attention. So did her warm, friendly and good-natured manner, which charmed everybody. But Harriet had not only inherited her mother's beauty, but also her credulity and naivete. When Mrs. Jones taught Harriet to read and write, she soon found out that Harriet needed a lot of encouragement in learning. Still, Harriet was not silly. She could learn as much as any child, as long as she could take her time and as long as her teacher was patient enough. Harsh words and scolding made Harriet extremely nervous.
On Harriet's 9th birthday, a letter from her father arrived. This letter was to change her life, as Harriet soon found out.
"Harriet, my dear child, come and listen to me," Mrs. Jones said. Harriet took a seat next to Mrs. Jones and looked at her, all anticipation. "I received a letter from your father today." -
"Oh, I have got a father?" asked Harriet, who had never heard about her father's existence before.
"Of course you have. Everybody has a father," was Mrs. Jones' answer.
"Is he coming to visit me? I'd like to see him! "
"No, he won't visit you. But he wants me to send you to school."
Harriet was startled. "Does that mean I'll have to leave you, Mrs. Jones?"
Mrs. Jones nodded. "I'm afraid so, Harriet. But your father has chosen very well. I know the school, it is Mrs. Goddard's school in Highbury. It has a very good reputation and I am sure you will do very well there."
Harriet started to cry. "Why cannot I stay here with you Mrs. Jones? I am sure I can learn everything I need from you!"
"Your father wants you to get an education that fits a young lady, dear, and that is something I can't give you. I am a simple woman without any accomplishments. There is nothing more I can teach you." Harriet cried for a while, and Mrs. Jones hugged her and tried to comfort her.
"When will I have to leave?" Harriet asked after a while.
"Mrs. Goddard will come and fetch you on the first of September, dear. You see, there is still some time left for you. You have still got the whole summer before you'll have to leave."
The summer, however, was soon over. Mrs. Jones and Harriet had been very busy all the time. There had been so many preparations to make.
The first of September had arrived, and Harriet found herself in a carriage with Mrs. Goddard.
Harriet cried and she felt as if her heart was going to break. Mrs. Goddard, who was a very intelligent and good-natured woman, let her have her way for a little while. She knew how a little girl must feel when she has to leave everyone and everything she loves and is used to.
After some time, however, she decided that Harriet had cried enough now and started a conversation to avert Harriet's thoughts from the separation. She told Harriet where they were going and what sort of place Highbury was.
As Mrs. Goddard was so nice and talking so cheerfully, Harriet finally overcame her shyness and started to ask questions.
"Are there many pupils in your school, Mrs. Goddard?"
"Yes, there are always between thirty and forty girls. Thirty at the moment. There are also three teachers, Miss Nash, Miss Prince and Miss Richardson."
"Miss Nash is the head teacher. She teaches Music, Drawing and French. Miss Prince is our English and History teacher, and Miss Richardson is responsible for the needlework lessons."
Harriet was quiet for a moment. "Do you teach too, Madam?"
Mrs. Goddard laughed. "Well, if you can call it teaching. I am the one who is responsible for your manners."
They were silent for a few minutes, then Harriet sighed.
"What's the matter, Harriet?" asked Mrs. Goddard.
"Oh, nothing, Madam. I only miss Mrs. Jones. And I miss Panther, too."
"Panther is my cat. I have known him since he was a kitten. I am sure he will miss me too." Harriet found it rather difficult to hold back her tears, and Mrs. Goddard tried hard to cheer her up.
"I am sure you will soon make friends. And I have a cat too, his name is Nelson. He is old and grumpy and he does not like children very much, but perhaps you are an exception. Animals always feel if a person is fond of them."
It was already dark when Harriet and Mrs. Goddard arrived in Highbury, so there was not much to see. After supper Harriet was shown into her room. The other girls who were to share her room had not yet arrived. The long journey had fatigued Harriet, and she soon fell asleep.
The next morning, Harriet was introduced to the teachers and her fellow students. They all seemed to be very friendly, except Miss Nash. Miss Nash, the head teacher, was a woman at the age of about 25. She was very tall and thin, and her surly face added nothing to her beauty. Miss Nash was very interested in everything that happened in Highbury, and she was not happy until she had told the news to everybody she met. She was the worst gossip for miles around.
As to Harriet Smith, well, Miss Nash did not at all like her. First of all, the existence of a child like Harriet was something her prudish mind could not bear. Secondly, Harriet was just the sort of pretty child Miss Nash had never liked because she was not pretty herself.
After Harriet had got used to her new school, she felt at home in Highbury. Both pupils and teachers in Mrs. Goddard's school liked her lovable and helpful ways. Even grumpy old Nelson seemed to have chosen Harriet as his particular friend. He was around her whenever he could, sitting close to her in the evenings when the girls assembled in Mrs. Goddard's drawing room to read or do their needlework.
Although Harriet was not the best of pupils, she compensated for this with her hard work. It took her some time to understand the things she had to learn, but then she always kept them in mind.
All the hard work did not help Harriet to succeed in the subjects Miss Nash was teaching.Harriet loved music and it was always a pleasure for her to listen to her schoolmates who sang and played the pianoforte. But Harriet had not much talent for music herself. She could not sing, it was nearly impossible for her to keep in tune. And even hours of practising did not prevent Harriet from being extremely nervous when she had to play to Miss Nash. Whenever Harriet made a mistake, Miss Nash started shouting at her. She called Harriet a silly, awkward girl who would certainly never learn anything.
"A young lady who cannot sing or play an instrument! How are you ever going to make a good impression, child? And your French! It is horrible! I do not know why I bother! Teaching you is a waste of time!" Of course, this made Harriet even more nervous, and she made even more mistakes. There were many lessons like this, and after these lessons Harriet often went to her room and cried secretly. After some time, Harriet was convinced that she was a silly, awkward person who deserved no love at all. She was thankful for every bit of attention she got.
The years went by, and Harriet had become a beautiful young lady. The pupils still met in Mrs. Goddard's drawing room nearly every evening. One of these evenings, Harriet overheard a conversation between Mrs. Goddard and Miss Nash.
"I think I have not told you yet, Miss Nash. I received a letter from Mrs. Martin today." Everybody in the room knew who Mrs. Martin was. Her husband, Mr. Edward Martin, had died under tragic circumstances a week ago. He had been a tenant farmer at Abbey Mill Farm. Mr. Knightley, the owner of the farm, had always thought very highly of him. "Mrs. Martin wants to send her two daughters here."
Miss Nash was astonished. "Why does Mrs. Martin send her daughters away? Wouldn't they be much more useful to their mother if they stayed with her?"
"Mrs. Martin writes that her husband's death was so sudden and unexpected that he left many things unsettled. Mrs. Martin needs to help her son, Mr. Robert Martin, to take control of things. She cannot take care of her daughters' education as well at the moment. So she sends them here, until everything at their home is settled. The young ladies will arrive tomorrow."
Harriet did not say anything, but she thought by herself, "I will try to be a good friend to the Miss Martins. It looks like they need a good friend."
The next morning, Harriet was on the look-out. She wanted to be the first one to welcome the Miss Martins and wanted to make them feel comfortable. Even Miss Richardson, who was the most good-natured of all the teachers, got angry with her. "Stop looking out of the window all the time, Miss Smith! You are supposed to work on your embroidery. Besides, it is most unlady-like to be peeping out of the window!" Harriet was too shy to mention that Miss Richardson and Miss Nash spent a lot of time by the window, watching the people in the street.
"I was wondering about the Miss Martins, Miss Richardson. Do you know when they will arrive?"
"No, I do not, Miss Smith. But I am sure you will find out as soon as they are here. In the meantime, keep your eyes to your work." Harriet didn't look out of the window any more, but she listened attentively.
Soon she heard a carriage. Then there were voices in the corridor. Harriet could distinguish between Mrs. Goddard's and three other voices. A short time afterwards the door of the school room opened and Mrs. Goddard entered, followed by two young ladies.
"Ladies, if you would listen to me for one moment. These are the Miss Martins, Miss Catherine and Elizabeth Martin. They are to stay with us at least until Christmas. I am sure you will welcome them and help them whenever help is needed. Miss Richardson, please introduce your class to the new students." With these words, Mrs. Goddard left the room,and Miss Richardson introduced all the pupils to the Miss Martins.
Harriet was fascinated by these young ladies. Miss Martin could be best described as a beauty. She had dark hair and big brown eyes. She was not very tall, but had a beautiful figure. Miss Martin moved with natural grace. Miss Elizabeth Martin, although she was the younger, was taller than her sister. Her hair was light brown, and her eyes were gray. There was something about Miss Elizabeth that made Harriet like her already, though they had not yet been introduced to each other.
Then Miss Richardson introduced Harriet to the Miss Martins and said, "I am sure you will show the Miss Martins to their room. They will unpack their trunks and join us as soon as they are finished."
Glad to get an opportunity to talk to the Miss Martins, and Miss Elizabeth in particular, Harriet led them out of the room. "How long are you going to stay with us, Miss Martin?"
"Until Christmas." Harriet remembered that Mrs. Goddard had already mentioned this and blushed.
"You must think me exceedingly silly, Miss Martin, for asking you something that Mrs. Goddard has already told me, but it was the first thing that came into my mind."
"Not at all, Miss Smith. How long have you been in this school?"
"I have been here for seven years now."
"Seven years?" Elizabeth Martin exclaimed. "What a long time! But surely you visit your parents in your holidays."
Harriet blushed again. "I have no parents I could visit, Miss Elizabeth."
Elizabeth looked at Harriet earnestly. " I am very sorry if I offended you, Miss Smith. I didn't know that."
Harriet opened a door. "This is your room. Please make yourself feel at home. Our French lesson starts in half an hour." The two sisters smiled and nodded. Harriet went back into the school room.
Half an hour later, the French lesson had just started when the Miss Martins entered the school room. They took their seats just behind Harriet, who greeted them with a shy smile. Miss Nash's expression was even sourer than usual.
"Miss Martin, Miss Elizabeth, I must say that I expect strict punctuality from my students. I know you have just arrived, so I will tolerate your being late this time. But make sure it will never happen again."
"Of course, Madam."
"Now ladies, I would like to see if you have learned yesterday's lesson. I will ask some of you some questions. Miss Westwood, please." Mary Westwood, a lively 14-year-old, was Miss Nash's favourite, and therefore her questions were rather easy. Miss Westwood answered all of them excellently, and now Miss Nash was looking for a new victim. Each of the young ladies in the classroom tried to look a bit smaller, so Miss Nash might overlook them.
"Mademoiselle Smith, traduisez, s'il vous plait." Harriet had studied all evening, but the moment she heard Miss Nash say her name, she forgot everything. She rose, and felt her knees go weak.
"Pull yourself together," she thought. "Oui madame."
"Miss Westwood's new dress is most becoming." -
"Oui, madame. La robe de Mademoiselle ...."
"Which dress, Miss Smith?"
"La...nouvelle...robe de Mademoiselle Westwood est tres...tres....tres.."
"Yes, Miss Smith?"
"We know that Miss Westwood's new dress is very something, Miss Smith, but WHAT? Do go on, I cannot wait all morning. Once again, please."
Harriet looked around helplessly, but none of the young ladies seemed able or inclined to help her. "La nouvelle robe de Mademoiselle Westwood est tres..."
Then she heard a whisper from behind. "....lui va tres bien."
"La nouvelle robe de Mademoiselle Westwood lui va tres bien." Miss Nash looked surprised.
"Well, Miss Smith, it looks as if you have improved. Still, you could have done better. Work harder next time."
Harriet was both relieved and confused. When she took her seat again, she looked around for a short moment and saw Elizabeth Martin smile and wink at her. So it had been her! Harriet resolved to go and thank Elizabeth Martin after the lesson.
After the French lesson, Harriet left the school room and waited for Elizabeth Martin. "Dear Miss Elizabeth, I wanted to thank you for your help. You were so kind!" Elizabeth Martin smiled.
"It was a pleasure for me, Miss Smith. If you want me to help you with your French, please do not hesitate to ask me."
"Oh, I do study my lessons every day, really! But as soon as Miss Nash looks at me and talks to me in that harsh way.... well, my head seems to be empty the very same moment."
"Are you afraid of Miss Nash?"
"Yes, I am. But she is right, I guess. I am a silly, awkward girl, and what is to become of me?" Elizabeth Martin looked at Harriet earnestly. "Miss Smith, a beautiful and good-natured young lady like you will be sure to make a good impression. You will be a well-settled lady soon, I am sure." Harriet gave Elizabeth Martin a shy and thankful smile. "And now, Miss Smith, if you chose to accept my invitation, I would be honoured. Please come to our room after dinner, and we will study our lessons together."
"I will be glad to do so, Miss Elizabeth."
Harriet spent many evenings with the Miss Martins, and soon they became close friends. They called each other by their Christian names soon. Christmas came nearer, and Harriet could not help thinking of it with regret. Christmas was to be the day when the Miss Martins were to return home.
But one evening in early December, Elizabeth welcomed Harriet in her room with the words," Do take a seat, dear Harriet. I want to read a letter to you. It is from my brother, Robert."
Harriet sat down and looked at Elizabeth attentively. Elizabeth started reading.
"Dear Cathy, dear Liz!
I hope this letter finds you in good health. Mother and I are both well. I know that you were depending on returning home for Christmas. Mother will come to Highbury and fetch you on the 20th.
But I am very sorry to tell you that your stay at home will only be a temporary one. There are still many things that will have to be settled, and although Mr. Knightley has been so kind as to help me, Mother still has a lot to do. Our business requires that I go to London in early January, and I cannot tell how long I will have to stay there. Mother will stay at home and manage the farm until I am back.
I am afraid she will not have much time for you, so we have agreed that you shall go back to Mrs. Goddard's the day after Epiphany and stay there until I come back from London.
It makes me sad to disappoint you, because I would like to have you at home just as much as you would like to be here. We can only hope that my business in London will not detain me long.
I am already waiting for Christmas and your return. Please give my regards to all your friends, especially Miss Smith, of whom I have read so much in your letters.
Harriet looked at the two sisters. "I am so sorry for you! I know how much you wanted to go home!"
"Well, there is rarely an evil that has not something good in it." ,Catherine said.
"I beg your pardon?"
"Dear Harriet, what my sister wanted to say is that we would have missed you very much if we had left you."
"You are so very kind, Catherine! Elizabeth, I never had a friend like you, and I assure you I would have missed you very much, indeed!"
Elizabeth laughed. "And that is why my sister and I have made a plan."
"A plan?" Harriet looked from one sister to the other.
"Cathy? Do you want to tell her?" Elizabeth asked.
"I will be very glad to. Harriet, as we thought we might never see you again after our leaving this school, we have decided to ask our mother to invite you to Abbey Mill Farm."
"We will ask her at Christmas, Harriet, and I am almost sure that she will consent. That is, if you accept the invitation," Elizabeth went on.
"Accept the invitation? Of course I do! If your mother invites me, that is."
The rest of the evening went very pleasantly. The ladies were talking of nothing but their plan and imagined how nice it would be if their wish came true.
It was Christmas Eve, and the Martin family were sitting in the drawing room after dinner. "Now tell me more about your friend, Miss Smith. What is she like?" Mrs. Martin wanted to know. "What would you like to know, Mother?", Catherine asked. "I think you know everything about Miss Smith already, as Liz has written so much about her in her letters."
"You never told me what she looked like, for example."
"Well, Mother," Elizabeth answered,"she is the prettiest creature I've ever seen - except Cathy, that is. She is rather short, about the same size as Cathy. Her hair is blond and curly, and her face looks just like an angel's. I wish I was as pretty as Harriet Smith!" Robert Martin, who was reading the newspaper and pretending not to listen, put his newspaper aside for a moment and said,"Liz, whatever your faults may be, you certainly are pretty."
"Not at all. You are only saying this because you are my brother." Robert sighed. "I'll have to stop making compliments, I guess. You never believe me, no matter what I say." And, grinning, he went on, "Perhaps if I said that both my sisters were as ugly as scare-crows, you'd be more inclined to believe me. Brothers are supposed to say nasty things about their sisters, aren't they?" Catherine and Elizabeth laughed, and even Mrs. Martin smiled. Robert was glad to see his mother smile again, it had been a long time since he had last seen her smile.
"Robert, what I wanted to say was that brothers tend to think better of their sisters than they deserve. But even you must admit that beauty is none of my virtues."
"Allright then, Liz, you are not at all pretty. Are you satisfied?"
"Well, perhaps." Robert shook his head and smiled. For a few minutes, everybody was silent. Robert took up his newspaper again, and Mrs. Martin and her daughters were working on their embroidery. Then Catherine adressed her mother. "Elizabeth and I wanted to ask you something, Mother." Mrs. Martin looked at her. "Well, what is it?"
"We would like you to invite Harriet Smith for the summer." Mrs. Martin sighed. "I cannot promise anything yet, Catherine. I cannot invite her before I know when Robert will be back. I'd be too busy to entertain a visitor. But I think I could invite her, yes." Both girls embraced their mother. "Thank you so much!", Elizabeth exclaimed. Mrs. Martin smiled. "Don't thank me until everything is settled. And now, children, what do you think of singing? It's Christmas, after all!"
Harriet was in Mrs. Goddard's drawing room with the teachers and two other girls who had stayed in school for Christmas. The evening had started with a delicious dinner, and now the young ladies were entertaining the teachers and their fellow students. "Une petite soir»e", as Miss Nash had called it. It had started with Miss Westwood, who had sung a beautiful Christmas carol. Then Miss Harrison had recited a poem. "Now, Miss Smith.", said Miss Nash and turned towards Harriet. "Why don't you play that delightful piece of music to us? The one we learned last week?"
"Miss Nash, I am not sure if I am already able to play it in company."
"Why not? Miss Smith, you will never make a good impression if you keep hiding away from everything. And besides, it is very impolite to refuse a request like this. I am sure Mrs. Goddard would like to hear you, too."
"I would be very pleased if you played the piano, Miss Smith.", said Mrs. Goddard. Seeing that there was no way out, Harriet went to the piano and started playing. But soon she felt that everybody in the room was watching her, and grew so nervous that she made a mistake. This was just the beginning. The more she tried to keep her eyes to the notes and play correctly, the more mistakes she made. When the piece was finished, Harriet swallowed the lump in her throat. The tears ran down her cheeks, and she knew what was to come.
"Well, Miss Smith, what was that supposed to be ?"
"I am sorry, Miss Nash. I got so nervous..."
"Why did you get nervous? Nobody will harm you, I am sure. You must practise more, Miss Smith. Just imagine what would have happened if there had been more company in here tonight. You'd have been a disgrace to Mrs. Goddard and our school, and even worse, they would have thought you have thought you extremely ignorant. You will practise in the school room tomorrow, Miss Smith, as soon as we return from church, and then we'll see if you cannot do better."
"Yes, I will, Miss Nash."
"You are not crying, Miss Smith, are you?"
Harriet wiped the tears from her face. "No, Miss Nash."
"Go back to your seat then. Miss Richardson is going to read from the Bible now."
Harriet went to her seat, but she could not pay much attention to Miss Richardson. Her thoughts were too much absorbed with her friends, Catherine and Elizabeth. "I miss them so much," she thought. "Thank god they will be back the day after Epiphany!"
The next day, Mrs. Goddard and her pupils went to church. They were all very curious, because it would be the first service to be held by the new vicar of Highbury, Mr. Elton. Miss Nash had talked of nothing but Mr. Elton for the last week. She seemed to know everything about him, and even the good-humoured Mrs. Goddard had shown signs of fatigue as soon as Miss Nash had entered the room. The most intriguing fact about Mr. Elton, from Miss Nash's point of view, was that there was no Mrs. Elton. And now they were to meet the fabulous Mr. Elton!
During service, Harriet kept an eye on Miss Nash. She was listening to Mr. Elton's sermon as if a choir of angels was singing. Was it possible that Miss Nash was in love with Mr. Elton? Harriet shivered. No man, whatever he might have sinned, deserved the misfortune of being loved by Miss Nash. And Mr. Elton, too, who was such an agreeable and handsome gentleman....no, he would certainly not fall in love with Miss Nash. After the service, Harriet saw Miss Nash walk up to Mr. Elton. She talked to him, and he answered very civilly, although his smile seemed a bit artificial.
When they arrived back at Mrs. Goddard's school, Harriet went into the school room immmediately. She had not practised half an hour, when Mrs. Goddard entered the room. "What are you doing here, Miss Smith?", she asked. "Miss Nash told me to go here after service and practise."
"Oh yes, I remember. But I am sure you can spare a few minutes? I have something important to tell you."
"Something important? Oh, what on earth can it be, Mrs. Goddard?"
" I received a letter from your father yesterday. He knows that your education will be completed in June, and he wants me to talk with you about your future."
"My future, Mrs. Goddard?"
"You know you cannot go and live with your father, Miss Smith, and - as far as I know- there are no other relatives. So I have a suggestion to make. What would you think of staying here with me as a parlour-boarder? I could introduce you to the society in Highbury, and maybe there are.... possibilities for you."
"Possibilities? What do you mean, Mrs. Goddard?"
"Possibilities of being well settled, I mean."
"Oh, I see, Mrs. Goddard."
"What do you think of my plan? Shall I write to your father that you'll stay here as a parlour-boarder?"
"I think it will be the best for me, Mrs. Goddard. I think I will stay here."
"Good. I will write to your father, then. And now, Miss Smith, I think you'd better go on practising. We do not want Miss Nash to scold you again, do we? I know she is harsh sometimes, but I don't think she means it," Mrs. Goddard said, patting Harriet's arm. Then she left the room and Harriet turned to her notes with a deep sigh.
"Dearest Catherine and Elizabeth,
I hope both you and your family are quite well. Did you have pleasant holidays? I am sure they must have been pleasant, as you are so fond of your mother and brother.
There are some news I have to tell you. First, Mrs. Goddard has offered me to stay in her house as a parlour-boarder. I have accepted, mainly because I do not know where else I should go. And then, there are two more parlour-boarders who seem to like it very much.
Secondly, Highbury has a new vicar, Mr. Elton. He is a very handsome and agreeable gentleman, and it seems that Miss Nash has taken a fancy for him. She is talking of nothing else but Mr. Elton and never tires of it. And she actually collects his sermons and reads them to us.
I have spent most of my time in the school room, practising the piano. Every evening, Miss Nash wants me to play for the teachers, and you know what happens when Miss Nash looks at me in her particular way. I make a lot of mistakes, and then she calls me lazy and silly. I will be so glad to have you back here again! You always help me so much, I do not know how to thank you.
I must finish now, Mrs. Goddard is calling us to the dancing lesson. Although I like dancing, I must say it is rather boring without gentlemen. I am looking forward to seeing you. Give my regards to your mother and brother.
"Poor Harriet!" Catherine exclaimed. "I really do not understand why Miss Nash treats her the way she does. Harriet is so good-natured, she never does anything to provoke Miss Nash, but still..." She shrugged her shoulders helplessly.
"I think I know the reason for Miss Nash's behaviour," said Elizabeth. "She does not like Harriet." -
"But why not?"
"Maybe it is because Harriet is pretty, good-natured and young. Miss Nash is not. Isn't that reason enough?"
Catherine nodded hesitatingly. "You could be right, Liz. I pity Harriet. Just imagine, she has to stay with Mrs. Goddard. That means Miss Nash will always be around her. I wish I could do something for Harriet!"
Elizabeth grinned. "Perhaps we can!"
Catherine smiled. "Liz, what are you up to?" Elizabeth started laughing. "Liz!"
"I'm sorry, Cathy, I just thought...(still giggling) that it would be wonderful if Miss Nash..."
"Liz, pull yourself together and tell me! What is the matter?"
Elizabeth tried to look serious. "If Miss Nash and Mr. Elton were to marry, I wanted to say." Now Catherine laughed, too. "Oh Liz, you are... impossible! You know this will never happen!"
"Of course, Cathy, and that's why I'll tell you the other possibility of helping Harriet."
At that moment, Robert entered the room. "I'll tell you some other time, Cathy." Robert looked at his sisters curiously. "Have you been talking about me?"
"Oh Robert, why on earth do men always think that women talk about them when they are not around?", Elizabeth cried. "Well, if you weren't, why did you stop talking when I came in ? It must have been something I was not supposed to hear."
"Cathy and I were talking about mere girl things, Robert.", Elizabeth said innocently. "I did not think you were interested in those." Robert sighed. "Mere girl things, I see. If you're not willing to tell me, I will leave it for the time being." He grinned. "I will find out anyway, sooner or later. Just wait and see!" Catherine laughed. "I am sure you will, Robert."
"Anyway, Mother wanted me to tell you to get ready for our dinner with the Masons." Catherine rose. "Allright, we'll hurry up. Come on, Liz!" As they were leaving the room, Catherine noticed Elizabeth's smile. "Is that what you're up to, Liz?" she thought. "Do you want Robert to marry Harriet?"
When Elizabeth and Catherine Martin returned to Mrs.. Goddard's school, they were welcomed by Harriet with genuine pleasure. There were many things they wanted to tell each other. The Martins were curious to hear more about Miss Nash and her "passion" for Mr. Elton, and they could not wait until next Sunday, when they would all go to church and see Mr. Elton with their own eyes. Harriet, in her turn, wanted to know what the evening with the Masons had been like. There was a young gentleman who was mentioned by Elizabeth very often, with a sly glance at Catherine. Catherine tried not to care, but her blush said more than words. The gentleman was the eldest son of Mr. and Mrs. Mason, George Mason. Elizabeth told Harriet that Mr. Mason had been very attentive to her sister. Catherine, however, did not want to hear of it. Mr. Mason had just been polite, nothing more.
On the following Sunday, the Martin's curiosity was satisfied.
They went to church, saw Mr. Elton, and heard his sermon. Afterwards, they had a good time talking about Miss Nash and her obvious fancy for Mr. Elton. During lunch, they heard Miss Nash's lecture about Mr. Elton's sermon and how touching it had been. Elizabeth winked at Harriet and smiled mischievously.
Later, the three young ladies went for a walk. They passed by the gates of Hartfield, and the house was visible in a short distance. "What a beautiful house!" Harriet sighed. "I wish I could ever see it from the inside. It is so impressing, isn't it?" Catherine agreed. "I imagine it to be very elegant, don't you think so, Liz?"
"Oh, I am sure it is. But how do you think you will get inside, Harriet?"
"I don't know. But maybe Mrs. Goddard will introduce me there one day. She often visits Mr. Woodhouse."
"Isn't there a Miss Woodhouse, too? I know a Miss Woodhouse married Mr. John Knightley, but isn't there a younger Miss Woodhouse as well?",Catherine asked.
"Yes, Miss Emma Woodhouse. We saw her in church today."
Just at this moment, two ladies came towards them. One was Miss Woodhouse, the other one was Miss Woodhouse's governess, Miss Taylor. The ladies greeted each other and went on. "Who was the lady with Miss Woodhouse, Harriet?" Elizabeth asked.
"Miss Taylor, Miss Woodhouse's governess. There is a rumour she is engaged to Mr. Weston."
Spring had come, and in the beginning of May, both the Martin sisters and Harriet received a letter from Mrs. Martin. Harriet's letter was a formal invitation to accompany the Miss Martins to their home in June and to stay there until August. Harriet was enthusiastic. A whole summer with the Martin family, and on a farm too! Pleasant childhood memories came back to her. After Mrs. Goddard had given her consent, Harriet wrote an answer to Mrs. Martin. She would be very glad to join her friends, and she would love to spend the summer on Abbey Mill Farm.
The letter to the Miss Martins was the following:
"My dear children,
I am glad to tell you that you can finally return home. Robert will come back from London next week. Everything has gone well. I am glad he will be here for his birthday, and so will you. I have already written to Mrs. Goddard to tell her that I will fetch you on the fifth of June. Your friend Harriet Smith is invited to join you and to stay here until August. I am looking forward to making her aquaintance.
Elizabeth ran to Harriet's room instantly, and they both rejoiced in their prospects of a beautiful summer. This evening was very pleasant, the three girls sitting together, and the Martin sisters describing Abbey Mill Farm to Harriet.
When Harriet went to bed this evening, she felt as if she already knew everybody and everything on the farm.
The weeks flew past. Harriet had much to do. She not only had to pack her things for her visit in Abbey Mill Farm, but also had to move into another room. As she was not a scholar any more, but a parlour boarder, her prestige in Mrs. Goddard's school changed. She was now nearly an equal to Mrs. Goddard, and she was surprised to see that even the teachers treated her with respect.
Miss Nash, of course, could not help making very cutting remarks towards Harriet very often, but adding every time, "You know, Miss Smith, I have to tell you this as your well-meaning friend." This sentence made Elizabeth laugh very often, although she tried hard to suppress her laughter. And even Harriet, credulous as she was, did not quite believe that Miss Nash had turned into a "well-meaning friend" so soon.
In the morning of June 5th, Harriet and her friends waited for Mrs. Martin's arrival. The two sisters were impatient, looking at the big clock in Mrs. Goddard's drawing room every two minutes and declaring that it must have been hours since they had last looked. Harriet was nervous. What if Mrs. Martin did not like her? What if she really failed to make a good impression, as Miss Nash had often told her?
On the other hand, she was looking forward to seeing Abbey Mill Farm. She felt that she would enjoy her visit there. For so many years she had longed to be back on Mrs. Jones' farm. Now she had the chance of being on a farm again, and even if Mrs. Jones would not be there, there were her dear friends, Catherine and Elizabeth and their mother and brother....Brother! What if Mr. Martin did not like her? Harriet was not used to the presence of gentlemen, and she was sure she would not be able to talk to Mr. Martin without making a fool of herself. He would think her exceedingly silly and boring.
The door of Mrs. Goddard's drawing room opened, and Mrs. Goddard entered with Mrs. Martin. The moment Harriet was greeted by Mrs. Martin, her fear was gone. Mrs. Martin was a very motherly person, and loved Harriet for being such a good friend to her daughters. She greeted Harriet affectionately, and expressed her pleasure to meet Harriet in a very warm manner.
Soon the ladies were on their way to Abbey Mill Farm. Mother and daughters were talking about all the things that had happened in their neighbourhood, and Harriet leant back in her seat and enjoyed the beautiful scenery around her. The weather was very fine, the sun was shining and the scent of flowers was in the air. As soon as they had passed Donwell Abbey, Abbey Mill Farm became visible in the distance. It was situated on the bank of a river that made a close and handsome curve around it. There were meadows in front of it, and a small wood was near the house. The house itself was rather large. So were the barns and stables. There was a dovecot in the farmyard. Harriet fell in love with Abbey Mill Farm at first sight, and felt that she would be very happy there.
"Will Robert be there to meet us, Mother?" Catherine asked. "Oh, I am afraid he won't, dear!" was Mrs. Martin's reply. "He rode to Donwell Abbey in the morning. There is some important business he wants to talk about with Mr. Knightley. He told me he would not be back before supper." Harriet was relieved. She had been dreading her first meeting with Mr. Martin and was glad it would not take place so soon.
When they arrived, there were already two maid-servants waiting for them at the front door. The elder was introduced to Harriet as Mrs. Simms, who had been with the family for 25 years. The younger maid's name was Bridget. Both welcomed Harriet, and showed her into her room. Bridget brought her some water to refresh herself, and unpacked Harriet's trunk. Harriet got dressed and then followed Mrs. Simms to the dining room.
After lunch, the Martins had so much to tell each other that it was nearly impossible for Harriet to say anything. She heard that the family were planning a dinner party on the 8th of June to celebrate Mr Martin's birthday. "We must try to get back to normal life, dears," said Mrs. Martin. "Although I still miss your father very much, we must try to live the way we always did. He would want it to be that way." The two sisters agreed. "Do you see the picture on the wall over there, Miss Smith?" Mrs. Martin asked. "It shows my husband." Harriet got up to take a closer look. The picture showed a gentleman who was about fifty. His hair was dark, with a little bit of gray. His eyes were brown, like his daughter's. "He was a very handsome gentleman, Mrs. Martin."
"Oh yes, he was, and the best of all husbands, too," was Mrs. Martin's answer.
Catherine, who saw that this topic was rather painful for her mother, tried to change it. "Whom will you invite for the dinner party, Mother ?"
"I don't know yet, Cathy. I think I'll invite the Masons and maybe Mr and Mrs. Charles." Elizabeth smiled mischievously. "Oh, the Masons! Are they all well?"
"I think so, Liz, at least I heard nothing to the contrary."
"What about Mr George Mason? Is he already engaged?"
" I don't think so." Elizabeth turned to Harriet. "I must warn you, Harriet, Mr Mason is a horrible flirt!"
"No, he isn't," Catherine exclaimed, and Elizabeth said with a laugh," You see, Harriet? Well, I'll better stop teasing my sister now. What do you think, Harriet? Shall we go and show you our farm? I think Mother will be glad to join us, won't you, Mother?" Mrs. Martin agreed, and so they went out into the farmyard.
Mrs. Martin and her daughters led Harriet around, into the stables as well as into the garden. The garden was lovely, all the flowers were in full bloom. The lawn sloped gently towards the river, and there, next to the river, was a summer house. "We sometimes take our tea down here, Harriet," Catherine said. "What do you think about this place?" Harriet looked at the summer house. "I think it is the loveliest place I've ever seen, Catherine. The whole farm is. I never imagined it to be so very beautiful!" Both mother and daughters were very satisfied with Harriet's praise.
They strolled around in the garden for a while until Mrs. Martin said,"I think it is time to go back into the house for our tea, children."
They all agreed and were just near the front door, when Elizabeth cried out, "Look who comes here!"
Catherine turned to look in the direction Elizabeth was pointing at. "Robert! He's early! Didn't you say he wouldn't be back before supper, Mother? Well, never mind! I'm glad to see him!"
Harriet looked at the young man who was coming towards them from the stables. He looked rather plain, she thought. His brown hair was the same colour as Elizabeth's, but it was rather rough. One could see clearly that he spent much time out of doors, for his face was suntanned. He wore plain, but neat clothes.
The moment he noticed his mother and sisters at the door, his face brightened and he smiled radiantly. "Cathy! Liz! I knew you'd be here already, that's why I hurried up! I'm so glad to have you here again!" He embraced both his sisters to greet them. Then he looked at Harriet, who was standing behind his two sisters. "Won't you introduce me to your friend, Cathy?"
"I'll be very glad to, Robert," Catherine replied. "Harriet, this is my brother Robert. Robert, this is my friend Harriet Smith."
Now Harriet and Robert Martin were facing each other. "God, she's so pretty," Robert thought, and suddenly all his self-assurance vanished. "How do you do, Miss Smith," he said with a shy smile. "I hope.... I hope you had a pleasant journey."
Harriet needed all her courage to answer. "Very pleasant, Mr Martin, thank you."
"Wel - welcome to Abbey Mill Farm, Miss Smith. I hope your stay will be a pleasant one."
"You are very obliging, Mr Martin."
When they entered the house, Robert thought," I must look like a complete idiot to her. Why can't I be a bit more like Liz? Blushing and stammering as if I'm not even able to talk! I could kick myself!"
Harriet was glad that the first meeting had gone rather well. Looking at Mr Martin a bit more closely, she had to admit that he was not so plain as she had first thought him. He had friendly gray eyes, like his sister, and she liked his smile.
No, really, not so plain after all......
In the evening, they were all sitting in the drawing room. Robert and his mother were talking about his visit at Donwell Abbey, and the three young ladies amused themselves with choosing a piece of music Catherine was to play. There were some arguments, of course. Catherine wanted to "show off" a bit and would have liked to play a difficult piece, while Elizabeth preferred an easier one, simply because she liked it best. Harriet, who liked both of the sisters, tried to find a compromise. "I'd be happy to listen to whatever you choose to play, Catherine. What about you playing both pieces, if you cannot agree on one? One piece to please Elizabeth, and the other one to please yourself?" Catherine agreed, took the sheets of music and went to the piano. Harriet and Elizabeth sat down on the sofa to listen.
While Catherine was playing, Elizabeth kept an eye on her brother. "Something's wrong with him," she thought. "He used to be much livelier. And I never saw him talk to a girl like he talked to Harriet. He was so completely different! And just look at him now! Looking at Harriet, but always turning away as soon as he finds out I'm watching him! That's not like my brother at all!"
Robert, meanwhile, was sitting on the other side of the room with his mother. They had stopped their conversation when Catherine had started to play. Now he listened eagerly to his sister, while he gazed at Harriet from time to time. His sisters had told him that Miss Smith was pretty, but he had not at all been prepared for such beauty. Her hair seemed like gold, and her smile... he had never seen a girl who could smile as sweetly as Harriet Smith. Then he noticed that Elizabeth was looking at him, and forced himself to turn away from Harriet. "She must think I'm a complete idiot," he thought. "Since we've first met, I haven't talked to her more than ten words. If she only knew how hard it is for me to talk to her!"
Elizabeth decided to talk to her brother later. He always went for a short walk around the farm yard to see if everything was allright before he went to bed. She wanted to follow him and talk to him. "Wee've always been so dear to each other," she thought. "I hope he'll tell me what's the matter with him. I hate to see him like that."
Robert had just stepped out of the house when he noticed that somebody was behind him. It was Elizabeth. "Liz? What are you doing here? I thought you'd gone to bed already."
"I'm not tired, Rob. May I walk with you? "
"If you want to." They went over to the barn, and Robert checked if the door was locked. He didn't seem to be inclined to talk. "Well?", Elizabeth said. Robert turned towards her. "What's the matter, Liz?"
"Is there something you'd like to tell me?" Robert sighed. " I don't know what you're talking about."
"Oh yes, you know pretty well what I'm talking about, Rob. Listen, we know each other well enough to notice when something is wrong. I've never seen you act the way you did today, Rob, and I couldn't help wondering."
"Robert??", Elizabeth said in a rather threatening tone. "Allright then. Can you tell me exactly what you're worrying about?"
"The way you treated Harriet today." Robert stopped. "Was there anything wrong with it?"
"There was nothing wrong with it, except that you tried to keep away from her the whole evening! And you didn't talk to her very much."
"Is that all? Well, first of all, Mother and I had a lot of business things to talk about. And then I thought you girls would rather stay among yourself on her first evening here."
"Am I supposed to believe you, Rob?" Robert gave a deep sigh. "No, you're not, Liz. But I'm afraid I can't tell you what is wrong with me because I have to find out myself first." Liz touched her brother's shoulder. "Is there any way I can help you?"
"I don't really think so, Liz."
"Well, if there is, let me know." She grinned. "And now, the last one in the house is a lame duck!" Robert laughed. "Liz, we are going to break our necks! It's pitch dark!"
"You're right," Liz said, seemingly repentant, but speeding away the next moment.
Robert laughed again and tried to catch her, but was not really serious about it. "If only you could help me, Liz," he thought. "But I guess I must sort that out all by myself."
Harriet woke up early the next morning. She looked out of the window and found that the sun was shining. Suddenly she felt that she simply had to go out into this lovely morning.
She got dressed quickly, and soon stepped out into the garden. Harriet decided to walk to the summer house and back.
Robert had also got up early. After a nearly sleepless night he was sick of pondering over Harriet Smith. "Let's get out of here and get some fresh air," he thought. "Perhaps that will help. I need to get her out of my head." But still he knew that this would be impossible. After walking around the farm yard, he decided to go into the garden. He could sit in the summer house for a while. The peaceful atmosphere there would surely calm him down. Besides, he could pick a rose for his mother. His father had done so nearly every morning in summer, and she had always been pleased about it. Perhaps it would do her good if he kept up the family tradition. Of course, there was another lady in the house who would be pleased about a rose as well... "Stop being stupid, Rob", he muttered to himself. Then he sighed. "I can't help it. I can't get her out of my head. I guess that is it. I'm in love." He walked on. "I must find a way to win her,"he thought. "But how? I can't even talk to her without making a fool of myself, and if I don't talk to her, she'll think I don't like her. Whatever I do, she'll either laugh at me or despise me. Why does that love business have to be so complicated? Well, if love was a business matter, I guess I could manage, but it isn't." Then he suddenly remembered something his father had once said to him. They had had an argument about something, he could not remember what it had been. His father had looked at him earnestly and had said," You're thinking too much, Robert. You use your head much too often. It is good to think, but try to let you heart get its fair share, too."
"Now I understand what he meant," Robert thought. "If only he was here! Things would be so much easier for me. Dad, why did you leave us so early?"
Being so lost in his thoughts, Robert had hardly noticed that he had nearly reached the summer house. And he was surprised to see that there was somebody there. "Good morning, Miss Smith!" Harriet, who had been gazing at the river, turned around. "Good morning, Mr Martin," she said with a shy smile. "That's you chance," Robert thought. "Use it."
"You are up very early, Miss Smith. Didn't you sleep well?"
"Oh, very well, Mr Martin, thank you. But I woke up early, and I saw that the weather was so nice, and... and"
"You decided to take a walk, Miss Smith?" Harriet blushed. "Exactly, Mr Martin."
"Would you mind if I kept you company, Miss Smith?" Harriet smiled. "Not at all, Mr Martin." Robert offered her his arm, and they went back towards the house. None of them spoke for a while. Robert felt that this moment was so precious, he didn't want to spoil it with words. Harriet was quiet because she did not quite know what to talk about. When they passed the rosebeds, however, she said," These roses are so beautiful! Don't you think so, Mr Martin?"
"Erm..Oh yes, they are. My mother is very proud of them." He stooped and picked two roses. "I wanted to pick a rose for her. And I would be honoured if you accepted the other one." Harriet blushed. "Oh, how very nice of you, Mr Martin! Thank you very much!" She smiled. "Your mother must be very glad to have such an obliging son."
"Oh, well.... I don't know, but.... I hope so..." Robert was absolutely charmed by Harriet's smile.
They arrived at the front door, and Robert opened it for Harriet to pass through. "Well, Miss Smith, here we are."
"Thank you, Mr Martin." At that moment, Elizabeth came down the stairs. "Good morning! I've already been looking for you. It's time for breakfast!" With these words, she took Harriet's hand and led her away from Robert. Of course, she had noticed the rose in Harriet's hand, and now she knew what was "wrong" with her brother. "It was a good idea to bring her here," she thought. "I think one day you'll thank me, Rob."
Later that day, in the afternoon, the young ladies went for a walk. They had been walking for about a quarter of an hour, when they saw a young man on horseback in the distance. "Who is that gentleman over there," Harriet asked. Elizabeth looked into that direction. "I don't know. It cannot be Robert, it is not his horse."
"It is Mr Mason!", Catherine said. "Mr Mason? But that gentleman is much younger than Mr Mason."
" Mr George Mason, Liz!"
"You're right, Cathy. It is Mr Mason. Harriet, you are about to meet my brother's best friend in a moment. And the handsomest gentleman for miles around." The young gentleman, meanwhile, had recognised the ladies, and joined them. "Miss Martin! Miss Elizabeth! How nice to meet you!" The two sisters greeted Mr Mason and introduced Harriet. "I am delighted to make your aquaintance, Miss Smith." George Mason smiled. "The Miss Martins have told me so much about you when we last met, that I could hardly wait to meet you." Harriet blushed and stammered something about Mr Mason being very friendly and obliging. While he was talking with the Miss Martins, Harriet had a look at him. Mr Mason was tall and elegantly dressed. His hair was black, and his eyes were blue. And besides, he was very charming. "Is your brother at home, Miss Martin? I wanted to pay him a short visit."
"Well,he was at home when we left, and I do not think he wanted to go out."
"I will go and see him, then. We will meet at your brothers's birthday dinner,I hope. Good afternoon, Miss Martin, Miss Elizabeth, Miss Smith." He bowed, mounted his horse and rode away. When the ladies went on, neither Elizabeth nor Harriet noticed that Catherine had gone unusually quiet. They were too much absorbed with their own topic: Robert Martin's birthday dinner. Elizabeth told Harriet everything about the guests who were expected.
Robert was sitting in his study, when Mr Mason was announced. He had tried to do some work, but had given up at one point because he had noticed that the thoughts of Harriet Smith had disturbed his concentration too much. So he was glad when his friend entered the room. George always distracted him.
"Working?", George asked.
Robert smiled. "Trying to, at least. What is it that brings you here, George?"
"I've got some serious and important business to talk about, Robert."
Robert looked at his friend surprisedly. "Serious and important business, you said? That doesn't sound like you at all, George."
George Mason sighed. "That is the bad side of being a clown, I guess. Nobody ever thinks I'm serious. I came here to ask for your advice."
"My advice, George? On what business?"
"I wouldn't call it business, Robert. It is a more personal question. I'm in love."
Robert started to laugh as if George had just told him a good joke.
"Robert?" George's voice sounded hurt. "What's so funny about that?"
"Sorry George, I did not mean to laugh at you, but... what's the problem? I never thought that someone like you might need advice in matters of the heart....." He started laughing again. "And then your asking me, of all people...."
George leant back in his chair and looked at Robert earnestly, saying nothing. Robert calmed himself down.
"Allright George. You want my advice, I'll give it to you. So, you're in love. That is good for you, and I guess it is also good for the lady. So, what is the problem?"
"She doesn't know I am in love with her."
"Why don't you tell her, then?"
"Because I am afraid she would refuse me."
"Refuse you? George, I cannot think of any girl that would refuse you!"
George sighed. "Well,I think that particular lady would. She knows me too well, you know."
"Now you're making me curious, George. Who is it? Do I know her?"
George smiled. "I think you know her pretty well. It is your sister, Miss Catherine."
"Cathy?!" Robert was astonished. "And you haven't got the slightest idea if she loves you, too?"
"Not the least. Listen, Robert, I'm serious. I want to marry her. I cannot marry her now, of course, we'd have to wait for two, maybe three years until I have earned myself a reputation as a lawyer."
Robert nodded, thoughtfully. "If you are really serious, George, you should talk to her. Basically, I have nothing to say against that match. If you can offer her a good home, and you really love her, I'm sure everything will be fine. But you'll have to talk to Cathy, herself! I cannot give my consent as long as you haven't talked to her."
"But she'll refuse me!"
"Why? How do you know she will? And what do you want me to do then? I am not going to force her into a marriage that will make her unhappy, you know."
"As I said, she has known me for such a long time. She thinks I'm a flirt. I try to make myself agreeable every time we meet, but she doesn't even care. She is polite, but that is all."
Robert thought for a while.
"All I can do, George, is to watch Cathy the next time you're together. You know her, she is not the person to show her feelings. But I can keep an eye on her and try to find any signs of like or dislike. I won't interfere. That's your business, and Cathy's." He sighed. "It is not that easy for me, you know. I never thought, for example, that I'd be responsible for my sisters' marriage. I always thought that would be Father's responsibility." Robert grinned. "And now you are here, my best friend, asking for Cathy's hand in marriage. How could I ever refuse?" Both gentlemen laughed.
"I am glad I told you everything, Robert. I knew I could count on you, as my friend."
Robert laughed. "And as a brother, I hope."
"I hope so, too."
Robert accompanied his friend to the front door, where they said good-bye to each other.
"One more thing, Robert. Please, don't tell your sister about our conversation. I don't want her to know yet."
"I won't say a word."
Robert went back into the study. George and Cathy.... what a surprise! He had never thought of this possibility before.
He knew that George was considered to be a flirt, but as far as he had seen, all George did was being polite to the ladies, who had sometimes even pursued him with their attention. The ladies were attracted by George's good looks and his easy manner, and his readiness to laugh. Besides, he was charming and ready-witted.
"With other words, the complete opposite of myself. He wants my help? Oh dear, I could do better with his than he with mine!"
Harriet, Elizabeth and Catherine were sitting in the summer house. Harriet couldn't help remembering another occasion earlier that day, when she had met Mr Martin. How nice he had been, and his smile.... Harriet did not understand her thinking him to be plain any more. Robert Martin was handsome in a way. His eyes, and this smile when he had offered her the rose...
"What's the matter, Harriet? Are you dreaming?" Harriet jerked and turned to Elizabeth, who was looking at her expectantly. "What do you think, Harriet?"
"I am sorry, Elizabeth, I am afraid I was not listening. What were you talking about?"
"We were talking about our brother's birthday. What shall we give him for a present?"
Harriet blushed. "I don't really know, Elizabeth, I mean, he is your brother, so you know him well enough to find the right present for him, to be sure..."
Catherine and Elizabeth exchanged a meaningful glance. Then Catherine said, "Liz and I thought we might perhaps sing to him. He likes to listen to us. There is just one problem. If we practise while he is in the house, he will hear us, and it is supposed to be a surprise. So we need to get him out of the house tomorrow."
Elizabeth looked at Harriet. "You must help us, dear Harriet!"
Harriet looked at the two sisters, totally taken aback. "Me ? But how?"
"Ask him for a favour. Ask him to get something for you in Highbury."
Harriet shook her head. "I cannot do this! It would not be right, it would certainly not be right! "
Catherine took her hand. "Please, Harriet, you would really help us. And don't forget, you're actually doing it for him. His surprise would be spoiled if he stayed here and heard us!" Harriet sighed.
"I don't know any errand for your brother in Highbury." Elizabeth laughed.
"I do! Why don't you write a letter to Mrs Goddard and ask him to deliver it? Nobody would suspect anything wrong if you did!"
"But I cannot ask Mr Martin to go to Highbury just to deliver a letter for me! I am sure he has so much to do, I do not want to trouble him with my business."
Elizabeth sighed. "Well then, Harriet. You write your letter to Mrs Goddard, and leave all the rest to me. I'll ask him."
Half an hour later, Elizabeth knocked at the door of her brother's study. She opened the door and found him standing by the window.
"May I ask you something, Rob?"
"Have you got any business near Highbury tomorrow?"
"I don't think so,no. Why?"
"I was just asking. I wanted you to deliver Harriet's letter to Mrs Goddard, but if you're not going to Highbury tomorrow, I'll ask someone else."
She turned around to leave the room, when she heard Robert say, "Wait a moment!"
"I just remember that Mother wants me to go to Ford's with her tomorrow. I can take the letter with me, if Miss Smith wants me to."
Elizabeth nodded. "I will tell her, then."
Robert waited until Elizabeth had left, then he went to look for his mother. He found her in the kitchen, talking with Mrs Simms. "May I have a word with you, Mother?"
Early the next morning, Robert Martin and his mother departed into the direction of Highbury, and the young ladies were left by themselves.
They practised their pieces of music, and Harriet, who could not be persuaded to sing, helped them by turning over the sheets of music and promised to help with the decorations.
Robert's birthday had come. He had started the day like any other day, with work. Harris, the shepherd, had asked him to have a look at the flock.
So Robert left the house early and was not to return until lunch. The young ladies used his absence to rehearse their "opera" once more and to check on their costumes.
The question of clothes was really important. Each of the young ladies wanted to look their best, and so they spent the rest of the morning to decide on what they were going to wear.
Harriet chose a light blue dress that accentuated the colour of her eyes. Harriet was far from being vain and did not at all think herself pretty. But her friends told her that this dress became her. And she sincerely hoped that Mr Martin might notice that, too.
Catherine decided to wear a white muslin dress, and Elizabeth wanted to wear her favourite dress, a white one with green embroidery.
In the evening, they helped each other with their dress and hair. Of course, this did not work without a great deal of whispering and giggling. And Catherine went to the window very often. As she said, she" wanted to see what the weather was like". She did not sound very convincing, though, and Elizabeth winked at Harriet and said, "Cathy is looking for the sun to rise in the west tonight." Both Catherine and Harriet laughed. Soon they heard a carriage arrive and went downstairs to meet the guests. It was Mr and Mrs Charles.
Mr Charles was a rather short and stout gentleman, about 60 years of age. One could see clearly that he did not only like to eat, but also to drink.
Mrs Charles was about five years younger than her husband. She was a good-natured woman who loved to talk. She was so fond of talking that her husband rarely had his say. The late Mr Martin had once described her as "a woman like a water mill, clattering and murmuring, and unable to stop." Mrs Charles had been Mr Martin's cousin, and so she and her husband were always invited to to family celebrations. The Charles did not have any children, and so they had always been very fond of the Martin children. Elizabeth was their favourite.
Mrs Charles seemed to be determined to live up to her reputation. She was talking on and on, and her husband remarked, "She will choke one day, I'm afraid. She doesn't even pause to breathe!" Robert, who had heard this remark, had a hard time suppressing his laughter.
He had cast an admiring glance at Harriet. She was prettier than ever. But, being the host of this party, he could not indulge in dreaming. He had to take care of his guests.
Shortly after Mr and Mrs Charles, the Masons arrived. Mr and Mrs Mason had two sons. The elder, George Mason, was to be a lawyer, like his father. He was nearly the same age as Robert Martin, only six months older. The younger brother, Edward Mason, was still studying. He was nineteen years old, and wanted to join the Army. He would have given up his books at any time, provided he might become an officer. To his great distress, his father insisted on his finishing his studies first, and believed that his son was much too young to join the army. Too young! Like his brother, Mr Edward Mason was tall and dark-haired, and one might have even called him good-looking, had he not had such a sullen air about him.
George Mason congratulated his friend, and then whispered into his ear, "Remember your promise!"
Robert smiled and nodded
During dinner, Robert had enough opportunity to watch his sister with George Mason, as she was sitting next to him. He could see her smile very often, and her eyes were sparkling. Robert decided to tell his friend that Catherine seemed to care for him, and that an offer of marriage might be received favourably.
Harriet, meanwhile, was monopolized by Edward Mason, who told her everything about the misfortune of being a younger son whose father did not at all support his ambitions. Harriet was extremely bored by this monologue, but tried to be polite. When she turned away from Mr Edward for a moment, however, she saw that Mr Martin was looking at her. His eyes were so tender, that she suddenly felt embarrassed. Why did he look at her that way? She gave him a shy smile and turned away from him.
After dinner, when the ladies had left the room, Robert took the opportunity to talk to George.
"George? Did you enjoy yourself, so far?"
George laughed. "Of course I did!" And then, in a lower voice, "Your sister was as charming as always."
Robert grinned. "The right introduction into the topic. Well, I've watched Cathy tonight and I think she would not say no if you proposed to her."
"How do you know? She was friendly and polite, as she always is, so how do you come to the conclusion that she likes me, or even more?"
"George, are you blind? I always thought you knew everything about women! Look into her eyes, George, you can read them like a book!"
George nodded. "I will, Robert. By the way, what do you think of Miss Smith?"
"Miss Smith? Well....." George laughed goodhumouredly.
"Do you know you actually blushed, Robert? Did I discover a secret there?"
Now Robert laughed, too. "There is no point in keeping anything secret from you, am I right George? "
"No point at all. I'll find out everything. So, what does Miss Smith think about that?"
Robert shrugged his shoulders. "I don't know."
George looked at his friend surprisedly. "You don't know?"
"I'm not like you, George," Robert said in a slightly angry voice. "I cannot talk to a girl the way you do. I wish I could, because it would be a lot easier for me."
George was silent for a moment. Then he said, "I'll help you."
"I beg your pardon?"
"I said I'll help you. What you need is a friend who tells you what to do. It's the least thing I can do for you, after all you've done for me."
Robert shook his head. "Please don't be offended,George, but I think I'd rather try to win her without your help. I want her to love me for what I am, not what I pretend to be."
George smiled. "Very well then. But if you need someone to talk to, you know where you can find me, don't you? What do you think? Shall we join the ladies now?"
While the gentlemen were not there, the young ladies prepared for their "opera performance". Harriet, who was responsible for the decorations, had just finished her work when the gentlemen entered.
Robert laughed. "What is going on here," he asked.
"Your sisters have prepared a surprise for you, Mr Martin, " was Harriet's answer. "Please take a seat, sir, they will be here in a moment."
Robert turned to his friend. "I knew the girls were up to some mischief when they were so eager to have me out of the house yesterday." And, smiling, he added, "Well, we'll see what comes of it in a moment."
George laughed, too. "Did you do the decorations, Miss Smith?"
"Yes, I did, Mr Mason. I am not good at singing, and so I offered the Miss Martins my help in that respect."
"You did very well, Miss Smith. Didn't she, Robert?"
Robert agreed. "Very well, indeed, Miss Smith."
Harriet thanked the two gentlemen and blushed at their praise. She was glad when the Miss Martins arrived and drew all the attention towards them. Catherine wore a "greek" costume and hairstyle, impersonating a Muse. Elizabeth was wearing men's clothes, and Robert recognised one of his own suits. He started laughing. "It actually suits you, Liz! But what does all that mean?"
Elizabeth stepped forward, and cleared her throat. She unfolded a piece of paper, bowed in a theatrical manner and started her speech. It was a short speech, consisting of rhymes that described incidents in Robert Martin's life up to this day. Everyone laughed and was in good spirits.
After Elizabeth had finished her speech, she went to the piano and accompanied her sister, who was singing an aria. Catherine Martin had an extraordinarily beautiful voice, and her audience was deeply impressed.
"She knew exactly what would please me most," Robert said to George. "I love to hear her sing."
Then the two sisters gave Robert their present. It was a set of embroidered handkerchiefs. Robert was surprised. "Did you take to embroidery, Liz?"
"Well, to be honest Rob, Harriet helped me."
"Really? I'll have to go and thank her then."
He got up and went over to Harriet, who was sitting between Mrs Martin and Mrs Charles. Mrs Charles was talking endlessly, and Harriet and Mrs Martin had nothing to do but nodding and saying, "Very true, Mrs Charles," from time to time.
"Miss Smith ?"
Harriet looked up. "Mr Martin?"
"My sister has just told me that you helped her with her present. I want to thank you for your effort."
"It was not at all an effort, Mr Martin."
"Did you enjoy this evening, Miss Smith?"
"Oh yes, very much, thank you Mr Martin. Does not your sister have a very beautiful voice ?"
"Yes indeed. Do you sing, too, Miss Smith?"
Harriet smiled. "No, Mr Martin. I have no talent for singing. But I like listening to music, especially to your sisters."
Robert smiled. "In that case, I am going to ask Catherine to sing some more."
Mrs Martin, who had overheard parts of that conversation, smiled. Her suspicion was confirmed, these two young people were in love with each other. She certainly approved of it. She approved of everything that made her son happy, and she liked Harriet Smith. And while Catherine sang one more song with her brother, she decided to help this couple as well as she could.
There was another person, however, who had noticed the understanding between Robert and Harriet, and did not approve of it at all. It was Edward Mason. He had taken a fancy for Harriet Smith. Nothing serious, really, he wasn't in love, but he was attracted to her beauty, and he thought that an affair with Harriet Smith might brighten up his summer vacation a bit.
"There must be something I can do about that," he thought. "I want her to be in love with me, not with that blockhead Robert Martin."
Harriet lay awake very long that night. The whole evening passed before her mind's eye. Something had changed Mr Martin, he had been so different that night. He had seemed to be much more at ease. Perhaps his friend had had a reassuring effect on him. Harriet sighed. She remembered his smile, and the look he had given her during dinner. And the way he had laughed..... . Slowly, she fell asleep.
The next day, Elizabeth asked Harriet to take a walk with her. She had also asked Catherine, but Mrs Martin wanted Catherine to stay at home to help her with some work. So Elizabeth and Harriet set off on their own.
Mrs Martin had kept Catherine at home on purpose. Late in the evening, after the guests had left, Robert had come to talk to her. It had been a long and earnest conversation. Robert had told her that George Mason had asked for Catherine's hand in marriage. Both, mother and son, approved of George Mason's plans, and they decided to give George an opportunity to talk to Catherine alone.
Robert had invited George for the next day, and was determined to be out of reach for the first twenty minutes after George's arrival.
So, when George Mason entered Mrs Martin's reception room, he found nobody but Mrs and Miss Martin.
"Good morning, Mrs Martin, Miss Martin!" He bowed.
"Good morning, Mr Mason! What a surprise to see you here. Are you here to visit my son, Mr Mason?"
"Yes, madam, he invited me yesterday."
Mrs Martin turned to Catherine. "Do you know where Robert is? "
Catherine shook her head. "No, Mother, I haven't seen him since breakfast."
Mrs Martin rose. "That is strange! Robert never forgets an appointment! He cannot be very far. I'll go and look for him, if you'll excuse me for a moment."
With these words, she left the room and left Catherine and George Mason alone.
"Please take a seat, Mr Mason. I am sure my mother and brother will be back any minute," Catherine said.
George took a seat, but he was quite sure that Robert and Mrs Martin would not be back "any minute", as Catherine had said.
"What a sly person Robert is," he thought. "He invited me, just to give me the chance to talk to his sister. He and his mother are real comedians!"
"Miss Martin, I think I did not yet compliment you on your singing yesterday. I was deeply impressed."
Catherine smiled radiantly. "Do you really think so, Mr Mason?"
"Oh yes, I do."
He got up and went across the room towards Catherine. "Miss Martin, why don't you ever take my compliments seriously? Is there something about me that makes me appear - unreliable?"
Catherine looked up and saw his face. "He is very serious at the moment, " she thought.
"Well, Mr Mason," she answered hesitatingly, "You seem to be very generous with your compliments. Perhaps they would be appreciated more if there were less of them around?"
George was astonished and hurt. He sat down next to Catherine and looked into her eyes. "Miss Martin, is this what you think of me? Do you think that I'm a flirt? Someone who pays compliments that do not mean anything? If you think so, you're mistaken. I always mean what I say, Miss Martin." He paused a moment, then he took her hand. "Miss Martin - Catherine - I just want to ask you one thing. Do you really despise me so much?"
Catherine looked into his eyes. He seemed to be very distressed.
"Mr Mason," she answered slowly, " I do not despise you at all. On the contrary..." She stopped, unable to speak on. The expression in George's face had changed completely, he was infinitely relieved.
"Catherine, could you imagine yourself-" He stopped. "How am I going to ask her," he thought. Then he tried again.
"Catherine, you may have noticed by now what I am trying to say, but nevertheless, I'll try it again. I am - desperately in love with you, and if you made up your mind to marry me, I'd be the happiest man alive."
Catherine could not speak for a moment. She had never felt so much happiness as she felt now, and she hoped that this moment might never end.
George misinterpreted her silence. "You do not have to answer now, if you don't want to. Take your time to make a decision." He sighed. "I would do everything to make you happy, Catherine."
"I know you will."
Now George dared to look into her face again. "Is that a yes?"
"Oh Cathy! You do not know what I've been through! And all just because I believed you didn't like me!"
With these words, he embraced Catherine, and they kissed.
They did not notice that the door had opened, until Robert cleared his throat. They both turned towards him. "I presume you're engaged to my sister by now, George," he said, smiling.
The couple agreed.
"In that case, let me congratulate you!" Robert embraced his sister. "I hope you will be very happy!"
Then Mrs Martin entered the room as well, congratulated the couple and welcomed Mr Mason in her family. "I think this is cause for a celebration, Mr Mason. What do you think, will your family come to dine with us tomorrow?"
"Oh, I think they will, madam."
"Let me tell you, Mr Mason, you will be welcome to visit us at any time."
"Thank you very much indeed, madam!"
Then he took leave of the family, not without noticing that Robert winked and smiled at him.
" Yes ?"
" I'll never forget what you did for me. You knew that Catherine would be alone with me, I guess?"
Robert laughed. "I made sure she would be alone with you, yes. I knew you would not let an opportunity like that slip away."
George laughed, too, and turned to leave.
"Another thing, George!"
George Mason turned around.
"Make her happy, will you?"
"You can count on me, Robert. I'll do everything in my power to make her happy."
He bowed to the ladies, and left.
When Elizabeth and Harriet came back, Catherine told them the happy news immediately. Both were very excited, and congratulated Catherine with all their heart.
"You know, Cathy, I've suspected you of being in love wigh Mr Mason for quite some time now. You know I always teased you! I'm so happy for you!"
Then Harriet took both Catherine's hands.
"I wish you all the best, dearest Catherine! I am sure Mr Mason will be a good husband!"
She turned to Robert. "Now isn't that a pleasant surprise, Mr Martin?"
"I think it must be wonderful to love somebody and to be loved in return," Harriet went on dreamily. Robert looked into her eyes. "Very true, Miss Smith."
Continued in Part 2
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